Introduction to MARTIN LUTHER
October 31, 2022
Pastor, Rebel, Prophet, Monk
In 1934, an African American pastor from Georgia made the trip of a lifetime, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, through the gates of Gibraltar, and across the Mediterranean Sea to the Holy Land. After this pilgrimage, he traveled to Berlin, attending an international conference of Baptist pastors. While in Germany, this man—who was named Michael King—became so impressed with what he learned about the reformer Martin Luther that he decided to do something dramatic. He offered the ultimate tribute to the man’s memory by changing his own name to Martin Luther King. His five-year-old son was also named Michael—and to the son’s dying day his closest relatives would still call him Mike—but not long after the boy’s father changed his own name, he decided to change his son’s name too, and Michael King Jr. became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr.
This father-and-son name change is just one dramatic measure of the influence of Martin Luther. Luther’s writings and actions so altered the landscape of the modern world that much of what we now take for granted may be traced directly to him, the quirky genius of Wittenberg.
For example, the quintessentially modern idea of the individual—and of one’s personal responsibility before one’s self and God rather than before any institution, whether church or state—was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white; and the similarly modern idea of the people, along with the democratic impulse that proceeds from it, was created—or at least given a voice—by Luther too. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, and self-government, all entered history through the door that Luther opened to the future in which we now live.
Luther is principally known for two iconic events that precipitated all else. The first, in 1517, was his posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the great wooden doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church, criticizing the then wildly popular practice of indulgence. The second was his unyielding courage at the imperial diet that was held in the city of Worms in 1521. It was there, before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and an impressive array of German nobles—and perhaps most important, before the pope’s representative, Thomas Cajetan—that Luther took his implacable stand and made the statement in which he immediately vaulted from the medieval cosmos into the modern. When he made it clear that he feared God’s judgment more than the judgment of the powerful figures in that room, he electrified the world. How dare anyone, much less a mere monk, imply there could be any difference between them? Since time immemorial, such men had spoken for God and for the state. But Luther defied them, humbly but boldly, in a watershed moment in world history. Those of us in the West have lived on the far side of it ever since.
What followed ended up scrambling the landscape of Western culture so dramatically that it’s hardly recognizable from what it was before. Luther was the unwitting harbinger of a new world in which the well-established boundaries of what was acceptable were exploded, never to be restored. Suddenly the individual had not only the freedom and possibility of thinking for himself but the weighty responsibility before God of doing so.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Luther’s story is that it need never have happened. Martin Luther was not a man born—or later inclined—to tilt at papal windmills. In fact, until about 1520 he was as vigorous a champion of the church as anyone who had ever lived. He desired desperately to help Rome elude the fate it ended up experiencing. In fact, in a case of extreme irony—so much so that one might think of Oedipus—he became the very man who brought about everything he had hoped to avoid. As his story illustrates, it was a sublime and ridiculous decoction of forces that created the perfect storm that burst over the European continent, creating what we now call the Reformation and the future. We can only wonder what might have been avoided had the distracted Pope Leo been sensitive to his role in history and taken the German monk’s earnest suggestions to heart. It was Rome’s mystifying inflexibility that drove Luther to bolder and bolder public positions, eventually putting him beyond rapprochement and setting him along a path that will forever be debated as either heretical and ignominious or as orthodox and glorious. But for good and for ill, Martin Luther was the midwife of the irrevocably divided world in which we now live.
Myth and Truth
During his lifetime, Luther’s celebrity grew at such a pace that the momentum of it could not be slowed even by his death. In fact, the magma of his celebrity soon cooled into hagiographic stone, such that much of what the world has come to “know” about him is fiction. The most well-known ”facts“ of his life illustrate the point. First, he was born into a family of peasants, the poor son of a miner who was raised in a home humble and cramped; second, his hardscrabble upbringing was a brutal one in which his dour working-class father buffeted him so viciously that it warped his psyche, causing him to see God the Father as a similarly glowering and sadistic figure to be placated and assuaged in endlessly humiliating religious contortions—or to be avoided entirely. Third, it was a literal bolt of fire from the heavens that caused the jumpy twenty-one-year-old suddenly to blurt out a binding vow—one he had never previously considered but that in his abject fear he indeed spoke—and then felt duty bound to honor the rest of his born days, thus leading him to become a monk. Fourth, it was on a trip to Rome that he was so shocked at the blasphemous devilry of that vile city that he decided he must destroy the soft and decadent Italian church and remake it in his own uncompromising and upright German image. Fifth, he began this lifelong project by angrily and defiantly hammering his damning accusations against Rome onto the very door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, thus putting the quivering pope on notice that his deeds had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Sixth, after his great stand at the Diet of Worms—where he said, “Here I stand. I can do no other!”— he fled to the Wartburg, where in his overflowing umbrage he took on the devil personally and at least once punctuated his fury by hurling a pot of ink at the fiend who dared to trespass his quarters. Indeed, anyone who doubts this need only go to the Wartburg to see the swart blots themselves, still staining the wall of his cell these five centuries later. Seventh, the nun he married escaped from her nunnery by hiding inside a large barrel that had only just been emptied of herring. In fact, all of the twelve nuns hid in filthy herring barrels secured to the wagon that hurtled them away to freedom.
These important details have been recounted innumerable times and are being confidently recounted this minute, told in tours of Luther sites around Germany in many languages, being written and read in otherwise excellent books about Luther, and posted in online articles and blogs. But not a single one of these seven things is true. They are each sloppy glosses on the actual facts and have over time congealed and finally ossified into the marmoreal narrative that has existed for half a millennium. Parson Weems’s pious legends of Washington chopping down cherry trees and casting silver dollars across the wide Potomac persisted for about 150 years, but these false details about Luther have persisted for more than three times as long. Their cultural roots are therefore that much deeper. It is my hope that what follows in this volume will do its humble part in uprooting them.
The Madness of Martin Luther
It is not just Luther’s influence in history that is extraordinary. His demeanor and character and behavior—all of which led to these events that changed history—are themselves extraordinary. But these things were not so much innate attributes as ones that revealed themselves unannounced and by degrees at some point after 1517. So we must wonder what can account for the change in his personality in the years following the publishing of his theses. How can history reconcile the intense and dourly over-pious monk of his earlier years with the bold, courageous, and even sometimes raucous joke-and-insult-producing machine of later years? Whereas he had earlier been obsessively serious, he later became fun loving, sometimes rising to rarefied heights of gag-inducing scatology and buffoonery. Although the change in him did not have the speed of Paul’s on the Damascus Road, it nonetheless is obvious and important. And whatever it was that happened, he eventually seemed born anew and became a kind of giddy pied piper for that newness and freedom and joy, so much so that many thought he must be demon possessed—or at least simply mad.
The short answer to this question, as well as the reason the story of Luther is unlike any other, is that he felt that after tremendous and agonized searching he finally—by God’s grace—had found that thing for which every human since Eden had pined. He had found the hermeneutical lever with which the whole world could be raised to the height of heaven. This had been the principal problem of all humanity—how to bridge the infinite abyss between imperfect mankind and a perfect God, between earth and heaven, between death and life. And Luther’s discovery was that this problem had been solved by the promised Messiah of the Jews fifteen hundred years before. In its way, the discovery was more a rediscovery. And it all amounted to only this: by simple faith one could accept God’s diagnosis and solution to the otherwise insoluble problem, and at the moment one did this, the problem was instantly solved. After wandering in the wilderness for centuries, the people of God could be led by this new Moses into the Promised Land.
Luther further came to see that to do anything but accept this notion as itself utterly sufficient would be to whistle past the graveyard. It would be to behave as though we might in some way add to what God had already done, which would itself destroy our ability to benefit from it. So like some madman—and yet one who understood he had unaccountably been given the honor of great knowledge—he dedicated every subsequent second of his life and spent every calone of energy available to spreading these world-changing tidings. He did it fearlessly, too, but not because he was traditionally brave; rather, because in this discovery, he had also come to see that death itself had been soundly and forever defeated and that this was in fact the central point of what he was saying. So taken together, Martin Luther’s is as dramatic a tale from history as one can discover, and as one should expect, its ramifications in history and for us today are similarly dramatic. How it was that Martin Luther came to rediscover this greatest of good news and how he then spent his life publishing it abroad in the wide world is the story that follows.